This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 5 2017
A man is not finished when he is defeated. He is finished when he quits.
Nixon inspired widespread loathing and derision; I recall a sketch on Monty Python Live at Drury Lane in the early 70s; a group of men are gathered around a bar: “Have you heard the news? Nixon’s had an arsehole transplant. The arsehole rejected him”. We must balance this with the more positive view presented in Evan Thomas’s biography, Being Nixon: A Man Divided.
Nixon’s Good Points
Chekhov’s criterion for calling a man good was a daughter’s affection and Nixon’s daughters Tricia and Julie certainly seemed to have a genuine deep love for him, which was reciprocated.
Thomas believes that, despite the references to ‘jigaboos’ and ‘jungle bunnies’ on the Watergate tapes, Nixon was not a racist. When Nixon was at Duke University, he made sure that a black student called William Brock was welcomed into his fraternity, at a time when almost all fraternities around the country were segregated. Nixon spoke out about segregation in Durham, and one of his classmates recalled: “He looked upon the issue as a moral issue”.
One of his classmates at Duke, Fred Cady, had been disabled with polio. Every day, Nixon carried him up the steps to class. Those who worked closely with him in later years regarded him as kind and considerate. He was shy and introverted by nature and did not like confrontation. Chuck Colson said that Nixon could be “brutally cold, calculating, a manipulator of power”—but “could never bring himself to point out to a secretary her misspellings”. Nevertheless, he showed great courage facing angry mobs who were spitting and throwing rocks on his foreign tours as vice president.
In Thomas’s judgement, Nixon, even as a congressman and a senator, had a long-range vision that most of his congressional peers lacked. He voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe because he understood that the Republican Party was doomed to irrelevance if it regressed to pre–World War II isolationism.
There were certainly achievements. In April 1971, Nixon approved a trip to China by the US Ping-Pong team and announced a plan to ease travel and trade restrictions. At the same time, his national security advisor Henry Kissinger was making secret trips to Beijing.
Nixon said that one of his long-term aims was the normalization of relations with China. His foreign policy was bogged down by the seemingly intractable Vietnam war and he was trying to find ways of containing the Soviet Union. Nixon saw advantages in improving relations with both China and the Soviet Union; he hoped that détente would put pressure on the North Vietnamese to end the Vietnam War.
Until Nixon’s 1972 visit, China was a pariah country like today’s North Korea and Nixon could claim credit for its isolation. His anti-communist stance when running for Congress against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, his support for Senator Joe McCarthy, his pursuit of Alger Hiss, helped him domestically to get away with approaching China. In 1964, he categorically stated that “it would be disastrous to the cause of freedom” for the US to recognize Red China, but he did it anyway. His record of anti-Communism gave him the credentials for making the bold move of establishing normal relations.
In 1972, China had a reasonably educated work force of nearly a billion willing to work for low wages. China was not burdened by environmental and health and safety regulations such as those being introduced in the US by Nixon himself. The Chinese leadership was ready to take the opportunity offered by Nixon through opening up of Western markets. His initiative hastened China’s technological advance through western transfers and gave China the means to fend off potential unrest by employing millions in an expanding economy. China’s military progress benefited from the huge forex reserves accumulated from the massive exports of cheap Chinese products and China used those reserves to acquire the latest military technology.
Critics have questioned whether Nixon’s initiative was such a good thing either for the Chinese people or for the US economy. As of October 2016, the US debt to China is $1.115 trillion. China’s role as America’s largest banker gives it leverage. US presidents who followed Nixon did not try to reverse his China policy. Even Bill Clinton became an enthusiastic supporter of trade with China once he took lessons in foreign policy from Nixon in early 1993. Even before he was inaugurated, Donald Trump was calling China an enemy, an “absolute abuser of the United States.”
Defenders of Nixon point out that he could have cancelled LBJ’s Great Society welfare programmes, but instead enlarged them. From 1970 to 1975, spending on human resource services exceeded spending for defence for the first time since World War II. Unemployment benefits were extended; social security benefits went up. The Nixon administration expanded the enforcement of affirmative action and signed legislation which banned sexual discrimination in education. He also supported the Constitutional amendment lowering the voting age to 18 and abolished the draft.
Even while he was being undermined by Watergate, Nixon was proposing a comprehensive national health insurance scheme which was not significantly different from the one that Barack Obama finally pushed through. In May 1974, such a massive piece of social welfare legislation had no chance of success in Congress.
He set up the Environmental Protection Agency. This is an example of Nixon’s pragmatism rather than liberalism. Nixon was not interested in environmental issues and delegated them to his aides, saying at one point: “Just keep me out of trouble on environmental issues.” He called the environmental movement “crap” for “clowns.” Nixon spoke of himself as a conservative who wanted smaller government. With an activist Democratic Congress, he recognised the need for compromise.
Some commentators are cynical about Nixon and de-segregation. Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” was to appeal to racial prejudice in the South and among blue-collar workers in the North and West. Nixon told an aide: “I think if we can keep liberal writers convinced that we are doing what the Court requires, and our conservative friends we are not doing any more than what the Court requires, I think we can walk this tightrope until November, 1972.”
In two landmark decisions with Nixon’s appointees providing 4 of the 5 votes, the Supreme Court effectively held that school systems could be separate and unequal as long as this was accomplished through tax policy and the arbitrary drawing of district boundaries rather than through direct pupil assignment. Nixon instructed government agencies to go only as far as required by court orders and no further.
Project Wizard – Rehabilitation
Elizabeth Drew referred to the inevitable process whereby historians try to find a new angle by rehabilitating a previously scorned figure. Nixon was himself at the forefront of rehabilitation attempts in what was termed Project Wizard. The plan succeeded to a great extent.
Everyone who was anyone on the New York scene wanted to be invited to the dinners (fine Chinese food served by Chinese staff) Nixon gave in his New York brownstone. He made more trips to China and travelled around the US making speeches about great leaders he had known, and wrote many books and op-eds. By late 1979, Gallup ranked him as one of the ten most-admired people in the world.
However, was deluding himself in thinking that he could return to real influence. After Reagan was re-elected, Nixon really believed that he had earned a high-level position in the administration. Reagan aides were incredulous. Nixon threatened Bill Clinton that if he were not paid proper respect as a foreign-affairs expert he would write an op-ed in a major newspaper attacking the president’s handling of foreign policy. It never occurred to him that many found him a nuisance.
Five presidents attended Nixon’s funeral—he got some respect when he was dead.